Having got as far as Tōkyō to take part in the Playable City lab, it would have been a shame to have turned around and gone back home again after only a week. So I didn’t.
What I hadn’t really planned for was my explorations to start with a trip to hospital, but there you go; it’s all good learning.
I learned that there isn’t really a GP equivalent in Japan and so if you’ve caught a lurgy you join all the hundreds of other people being herded around the hospital in an efficient manner. Somewhat bewildering without enough of the language, but with some supplementary pointing, and after being politely relieved of some money, I got some meds and was eventually on my way.
First stop was Hakone, where I’d decided to treat myself to two nights in a ryokan.
The wikipedia article starts by describing ryokan as “a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travelers along Japan’s highways. They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata and talk with the owner”. Having gazed longingly at the clear blue skies from my hotel room window when I was too ill to go out and play in Tōkyō, in my chats with the ryokan staff we joked that I was a rain god. Yup, you’ve guessed it: I’d planned to do some walking around Hakone and, for the two days I was there, it was pretty miserable weather.
Armed with my kagoul, a sense of humour and slightly inadequate maps, I set off to walk along a well-preserved section of the old Tōkaidō highway that used to be the main route between Kyōto and what is now Tōkyō. My ryokan was close to the Hakone Sekisho (security checkpoint) so I had a look around there first before setting off up the steep wooded slopes along the ancient cobbles.
Pretty mind-boggling to try and imagine what this road was like 400 years ago with volcanoes and earthquakes adding to all the usual human-powered perils.
Apparently, around here is the re-routed section that was built to make the going less steep. No wonder it was travelled by foot and not by wheeled transport…
I only walked a few miles, but was grateful when I reached the amazake chaya serving its cups of warm, sweet, fermented rice drink. The room was dim and full of slightly biting wood smoke from the fire, but check out the size of that brass kettle between the table and the counter in the background for a sense of how this place has traditionally provided a welcome haven for the travellers that stop off here!
From the tea house I opted to make use of my Hakone Free Pass and take the white-knuckle roller coaster bus ride over to Hanone Yumoto and then the Tozan Railway and Cable Car (funicular railway) up into the mountains. Unfortunately the Hakone Ropeway (cable car) wasn’t operating by the time I got to Sounzan station, so I retraced my steps back to Yumoto through the drizzle and failing light and then braved the bus once again to return to the ryokan.
The next day was even wetter, but I still had the Free Pass and I was determined to use it so I attacked the mountains from the other direction: taking a ferry boat mocked up as a replica HMS Victory across the lake and then the Ropeway up to Ōwakudani.
Wikipedia informs me the name Ōwakudani (大涌谷) literally means “Great Boiling Valley”, which makes perfect sense: steam rises from countless fumaroles as you reach the upper slopes.
The combined effect of the vents, the strongly sulphurous smell, the scree slopes and the Geomuseum finally brought home to me how volatile the landscape around here is.
I returned to the ryokan, collected my bags and headed off to a friend’s house and significantly more snuggly surroundings …even if I did have to contend with bears and interlopers in my bed.
A few days later my JR Pass kicked in, so it was time to hit the
I arrived in Kyōto around lunchtime along with a light snowfall and a reminder that it was indeed December. I’d originally planned to hire a bike, but opted for a walking instead. I popped in on the garden at Konchi-in as the shadows were lengthening and climbed the sanmon gate of Nanzen-ji as golden hour illuminated a pretty good view of the city.
That afternoon I was mostly fixated by the many amazing rooflines I encountered, so the taking of photos happily continued as dusk fell and I started to make my way down Tetsugaku-no-michi (The Philosopher’s Path), arriving at Ginkaku-ji well after dark when everything was shut.
The next day was mostly about trains; travelling the 460-or-so miles between Kyōto and Kumamoto, almost – but not entirely – successfully managing a series of very tight transfer windows at 4 or 5 busy shinkansen stations.
I stopped off en route to meet up with a producer at Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media who gave me a very interesting tour of the building and the various activities going on there, followed by a slap-up sushi lunch and then a bike to go off exploring with for an hour or so. I was so ready for that bike ride after having been sat on trains since early morning!
My somewhat circuitous route took me over to Ruriko-ji where I had a super quick look at the pagoda and then sprinted back in order to be in time to catch a few more trains.
After a minor embarkation error and a bit of on-the-fly emergency plan B-ing, I eventually made it to Kumamoto, in position and ready to make the most of the following few days staying with a friend and her family on the outskirts of the city.
Daylight hours included being taught how to play shogi, making splatty sweets and establishing the level of mime required to communicate (we don’t have much language overlap, but it seems to mostly work out okay). After the youngest young ‘un had curled up and been hit several times with a horizontal rolled up newspaper, we set off into the sunset to the village temple…
…where we were to watch the 6 p.m. ringing of the bell.
…except it turned out that my friend had been at school with the obõsan so we ended up not watching his wife ring the bell but climbing up and giving it some welly [religious technical term] ourselves. I particularly liked the stone system for keeping count of how many times the bell had been rung. The bell was impressively loud and reverberant from that close, so I can well imagine it would be easy to lose count.
We also learned that the 6 a.m. bell ringing had been ceased after complaints from the locals…
It then turned out that, whilst we’d been ringing the bell, the obõsan had been inside getting changed into more formal attire and we were then allowed to accompany him into the inner part of the main hall where we got to peer at all the ornate carvings and he explained the significance of various things. Again we didn’t have much language overlap, but I probably learned more about Buddhism that evening than I had done in several visits to Kyōto and all the massive temples there.
The young ‘uns were back at school the next day, so my friend and I joined a class of 5 year olds (almost as loud as a temple bell!) for a miso making session. It involved some very large bowls, some satisfyingly hands-on mixing of squelchy stuff and then punching the resulting mixture into those bags you can see the background, hopefully with no air trapped inside.
I couldn’t take much of our miso back on the plane with me, but a lunchbox full is currently quietly fermenting away in the cupboard underneath my kitchen sink. It’s got to do this for the next 3 months or so and then I suppose it’ll either be green and furry or I’ll need to find someone who actually knows what miso’s supposed to taste like to declare whether it’s ready or not!
What with the miso and the amazake, I’m becoming more and more curious about all the different Japanese foodstuffs made from variants of fermented rice. I’m pretty sure there’s a project in there somewhere, but failing that I bet there’s loads of interesting traditional processes to learn about and wonder at.
After the miso punching we had time for a quick look at Kumamoto Castle. Kumamoto was hit by a large earthquake in April and driving through the city had already been a sobering experience seeing all the signs of the damage done: blue tarpaulins on many of the rooftops (as shown in the Google maps screenshot above); gravestones all akimbo; and occasionally an apartment block with a ground floor missing. Well, not missing, just very compressed.
I’d been around Kumamoto-jō on a previous visit, so I had reference points for before and after. Even without these, the large rocks strewn about the place, the collapsed walls and the dishevelled tiles all brought home the power of the quake. They’re still getting aftershocks, so there’s not yet much that can be done in the way of tidying up, though I dread to think how long it will take to try and reassemble everything once they do get started.
On the return of the young ‘uns from school that evening we went for a stroll around the local area.
My friend was worried that I would be bored in such a small, quiet place (let’s face it: everywhere’s going to be small and quiet after Tōkyō), but I really enjoyed hearing about the personal stories related to the area, including short-cuts back from school along the bamboo road (don’t tell her mum!).
Also more shenanigans on a bike that was way too small for me, but much fun nonetheless!
Back on the shinkansen again…
Fascinating watching how the population puddles in the flat areas, right up to the foothills of the mountains, and then how the cloud sneaks down and gathers on the upper slopes almost as if it’s poised ready to take the place of the buildings if given half a chance.
Next was a couple of nights staying at the Wasyugama pottery near Okayama.
As soon as I’d learned about this place I’d wanted to make sure I got a chance to visit. Next time I’m going to have to make sure I stay for longer.
On arrival I got a quick tour of the workshop and I grilled K on the firing process (there are a couple of videos on YouTube if you’re interested) and how the different decorative effects were achieved. Then we made a dash across the city to the Fukiage Art Museum to look for a power drill.
I very much like the act of shedding your outdoor shoes, stepping up onto a wooden platform and then padding around on immaculately polished floorboards in a pair of slippers. [I’d love to try to recreate a similar process of crossing a threshold and entering into a different frame of mind/body for engaging with art/ideas back here in the UK. I wonder how it would be received…]
Here the light switches were located in distant corners, so we did a lot of our slipper-shuffling in the dark using our phones for light. That and having the place all to ourselves was really rather magical.
I didn’t have a plan for Okayama other than to relax and soak up as much knowledge as possible. With my host’s comment that most people came to stay there because it was within day-tripping distance to the island of Naoshima I hit some sort of threshold for people suggesting I should go there, so that’s what I did.
Naoshima is a small island (I walked across it in about 30 minutes) in the Seto Inland Sea that somehow manages to be home to a massive mining operation …and several contemporary art museums and installations.
A late start and a series of extenuated transfer times for trains, ferries and buses meant I had limited time to actually look at the art, so I opted to forgo the big museums and instead hunt out the Art House installations dotted around the port of Honmura. Here empty buildings have been transformed into artworks, containers for artworks, and things that blur the boundaries between the two.
Above: the 200 year old Kadoya house
Below: a former dentist’s office
There are 7 locations in all, and entrance for 6 of them is charged at about £7, with staff at each location stamping your ticket/leaflet. I’m incredibly curious about how the project came about (it seems the first installation was in 1998, and the latest three in 2006) and where the different sorts of value are perceived to be.
I often find myself working in contexts that have a regeneration agenda attached, so to see an empty buildings project that appears to involve a string of established (presumably well-remunurated) artists, and that can support admission charges and associated costs of staffing and marketing, raises lots of chewy questions. Is it purely seen as a commercial undertaking? Was it a grass-roots project that just evolved, or was it masterminded and commissioned by someone? How do the locals feel about having their small town overrun by tourists? How has the art-ification of Naoshima improved the quality of life for the residents (if at all)?
What I was hoping to see was signs of art happening in the margins – of a critical mass of activity that helped to attract and support emerging artists with more experimental practices – but I didn’t really see any. That’s not to say it isn’t there, of course, I only saw a tiny amount of one area before the sun started to sink and closing times were reached.
Instead of walking back over the island to the ferry terminal I opted to walk along the coast and admire the sunset before taking the bus back.
I’d mostly been inside my head all day, existing in the space behind my eyes as I waited for transport or passively viewed art, so the stand-out experience of the whole day for me was a series of interactions with a young girl who was playing with a football in the car park outside this ramen restaurant and who found the courage to come up to me at the bus stop to say hello. (Something she couldn’t convince her little sister to try!)
It got me thinking about the Playable City lab and how, on an island of flagship museums and many invested art dollars, someone venturing a few steps and offering the exchange of a few sentences was the most profound thing. ありがとうございました、竹下さん。
Back at the pottery I had just enough time to make use of the fruit I had carefully carried from Kumamoto and take my winter solstice yuzu bath.
The following day I upped the ante on my rucksack-slugging journeying and once more set off for multiple train journeys, except this time with rather a lot of fragile handmade ceramics with me.
That evening, in a university art department somewhere towards the west of Tōkyō, I dined on traditional Japanese cuisine such as oden, onigiri, sushi and honey and ginger flavoured KitKats.
I was the guest of an artist/lecturer there and, having met various members of the department and given a presentation about my practice, in the morning we then set off on a mission to explore Tōkyō.
First was our induction into ‘Deep Tōkyō’: Nakano Broadway. This building has evolved into a centre for anime and manga otaku; something neither her nor I are, so we nervously explored different floors and a few of the tiny, crammed shops before escaping back outside into the relative fresh air and serenity of the city.
Seeking an antidote to Deep Tōkyō we headed up, up, up to the 45th storey observatories in the Metropolitan Government Buildings in Shinjuku where the weather was on good form, giving us a reasonable view of Fuji-san and strikingly dramatic shafts of sunlight lighting up swathes of the metropolis stretching out endlessly all around us.
We finished up by spending about 3 hours poking around in the wonderful Intermediatheque museum. Photography wasn’t allowed and the website doesn’t give much of an impression of the place, so you’ll have to imagine somewhere that’s a cross between the Pitt Rivers museum and the Lapworth geology museum at the University of Birmingham, with something of the curatorial feel of the V&A.
The highlight for me was the man at the desk at the back of the 2nd floor trying to piece together a jaguar skeleton whilst happily chatting to visitors and challenging people to correctly match the articulating surfaces of a deer’s leg. He said it takes him about 2 weeks to prepare a skeleton and armature – you can see why!
The next day we went to see a group exhibition of some artists who work in metal and then I managed to convince my companion to join me at the Bicycle Culture Center [English language article] by telling her a bit about Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers research project and showing her my photos of the Bloomer Ride.
By this stage it was Christmas Eve and I relocated back to Yokosuka for more bears and also a second yuzuburo, although this time with more juggling and plastic turtles.
For our Christmas party we took the Japanese’s adopted fried chicken, and added raw octopus, sushi cake and a kind of summer fruits pudding.
Our special guest of honour seemed to approve, and I have to say I also really enjoyed the blend of familiar and completely alien ingredients to the afternoon! We did however keep to the universal truth of the empty cardboard box being played with as much, if not more, than the present itself.
I flew home a day and a half later.
I’m not really sure how to conclude this blog post – writing it has been a good way to remind myself of everything that happened, but I feel its only just the start of the process of digesting and reflecting upon it all. Maybe check back in with me in a few months’ time to see what is still in technicolour and what has faded?
In the meantime, many, many thanks to everyone who hosted me, taught me, laughed with me, or just took a chance on saying hello.
The photos here are all released under a CC by-nc-sa license, with larger sizes of the originals (and many more) to be found over on Flickr in this album. If you want to skip the Playable City workshop photos, then start about halfway down this page.